How Arthouse Movie Theaters Are Surviving the Pandemic

It was midway through a matinee screening of Little Women when Josh Stafford realized he’d have to close Ottawa’s Mayfair Theater with no clear idea of when it would re-open.

A co-owner of the venerable venue, a fixture of the Old Ottawa South neighborhood since 1932, Stafford had been following the spread of Covid-19 from the early days of 2020. But, like much of the world, Stafford wasn’t sure how seriously to treat it or what its ultimate impact would be. “You kind of heard about this, this Covid thing,” Stafford says, “and we started taking precautions on our own, like a lot of businesses, just kind of saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to limit the number of people in, we’re gonna have hand sanitizer.’”

That ended on March 15th.

“March 15, rolled around, and it was all over the news,” Stafford continues. “I just happened to be working that day and one of my partners said, ‘I think we just have to close down because businesses are starting to close down.’ It felt like —not to make light — we were in a disaster movie. Just a couple of weeks before, everything was fine. We were doing well, riding the coattails of Parasite and bringing in people and, and then, ‘Oh, we have to close down the business because we’re afraid of a terrible worldwide pandemic.’”

As the pandemic spread and the scale of the crisis became easier to discern, variations on Mayfair’s story played out at arthouses across North America and beyond. Once thriving theaters now stood empty, their marquees still advertising the last films to play before the shutdown or bearing messages like “See You Soon!” But as “soon” stretched from the anticipated two weeks to months — interrupted only by the occasional ability to reopen at partial capacity during dips in the disease’s speed in certain regions — it became clear that theaters would have to get creative if they wanted to fire up the arc lamps again when the crisis abated.

That involved finding ways to meet the needs of customers whose isolation didn’t quell their desire to watch movies. But what do you do when you’re in the movie theater business and you can’t operate a movie theater? For many arthouses, the answer has been twofold: 1) Bring the movies directly to viewers stuck and home. 2) Take the movies elsewhere.

Fortunately, one distributor had an idea at the ready. Shortly after the closure of the Jacob Burns Film Center, a non-profit arthouse located in Pleasantville, New York, senior film programmer Andrew Jupin (who also co-hosts the popular podcast We Hate Movies) heard from the New York-based indie distributor Kino Lorber. The Kino release Bacurau had been scheduled for shortly before the shutdown, but the company had a backup plan. “They said, ‘Hey, we kind of have this idea for a virtual cinema based off of our Kino Marquee platform. Would you be interested in partnering with us?’,” Jupin says. “And so the next thing I knew, we were playing Bacurau virtually On March 20th, 2020, we had one film ‘onscreen’.”

The idea is simple: Rather than a physical release, films make the virtual rounds, following a release pattern that mimics the way they would travel from theater to theater. Viewers can purchase a ticket to a film “playing at” a favorite theater then stream it as a video-on-demand title at home and said theater then gets a cut of the ticket sales. Films scheduled for release still make it out into the world and they play in such a way that local theaters benefit. The virtual cinema idea caught on quickly, with other distributors adapting it for their own releases. Stafford describes the pitch as an everybody-wins scenario, saying, “They said, ‘All you have to do is talk about it on social media and we’ll give you a cut. You don’t have to pay a distribution fee. You don’t have to do anything.’ So we kind of became like a video store.”

But what about those in search of a pandemic-safe moviegoing experience that involved leaving the house? Where the virtual theater provided a solution in the form of a new idea, a different sort of solution presented itself in the form of an old idea: the drive-in. In regions where drive-ins remained open, this was practically as simple as flipping a switch, but such places have become vanishingly rare over the past few decades as changing viewing habits and swelling real estate costs, particularly near cities, have combined to endanger what was once an institution.

One solution: create drive-in theaters where no drive-in theaters had been before. “With the exception that we had parking lots, we had to build it from scratch,” Richard Williams, programming manager of Atlanta’s 81-year-old Plaza Theatre says. “It was arduous. It was very annoying, but it made everybody feel better at the end of it.” The effort proved successful enough that the Plaza eventually opened a second drive-in space in the parking lot of the improv theater Dad’s Garage. Williams notes they did have to shift strategy with their programming a bit for the new venues.

“We played a few newer movies over the course of the summer,” Williams says. “Right before Senator John Lewis passed, we played his movie Good Trouble. We played the Neon movie She Dies Tomorrow. But for the most part, we were playing classics, movies people already knew. […] Nostalgia makes people happy and during a pandemic, people need a reason to smile.”

Other theaters had to get more creative still. Chicago’s The New 400, a venue in the Rogers Park neighborhood whose lineage as a movie house can be traced back to Regent Theater in 1912, temporarily reinvented itself as a Covid-testing center. Over the course of the shutdown, The New 400 also partnered with and provided popcorn for the charity A Just Harvest, operated a patio bar and concession stand during summer months, served as a headquarters for those marching in Black Lives Matters protests, and made itself available for private rentals. Hoping to reopen for regular business this summer, its Facebook page now boasts of having “served Rogers Park through two pandemics.”

Elsewhere in Chicago, the Music Box Theatre spent its 91st year in operation trying one tactic after another to keep some kind of revenue flowing in even as its two auditoriums sat empty. And, like other theaters, the Music Box never saw the pandemic coming and had to think on the fly. “We were in the middle of our 70mm festival, which we had had on the books for six months,” senior operations manager Buck LePard recalls. “We got through the first weekend of the festival and there were rumblings that this thing is bigger than people were anticipating and adjustments might need to be made.” Instead of adjustments, however, the theater faced a total shutdown.

To keep operations rolling, they tried a bit of everything. Virtual cinema screenings, drive-in events (including turning the annual Music Box of Horrors event into an October-long drive-in series with new film selections each night), and concession sales. For Music Box regulars, a package deal that included a bag of popcorn, a six-pack of beer, and some movie theater candy — with seasonally appropriate upgrades for Halloween, Christmas, and other special events — became a weekly treat that made movie nights at home feel a little more like the way things used to be.

So what happens next? We’re now entering the second year of the pandemic, but as infection rates drop (or at least level) and vaccination rates rise, theaters have cautiously begun the process of reopening. The Mayfair, Plaza, and Music Box have reopened with limited-capacity screenings and the Burns is preparing to resume operations in the weeks ahead. But some of the changes forced by the pandemic seem as if they might stick around, at least for a while. The Plaza’s drive-ins remain open, for instance. The Music Box’s virtual theater allows it to host more movies than its two screens could allow and regulars still show up for popcorn and concessions on the weekend, including those who won’t feel safe returning to theaters until after they’ve been vaccinated.

The past few years have prompted a lot of hand-wringing over the future of movie theaters as home-viewing options become the default. That hand-wringing has grown more intense over the course of the pandemic thanks to the bleak financial outlook for multiplexes and developments like Warner Bros.’ decision to release its feature slate simultaneously to theaters and HBO Max. But the calculus for arthouses, which have always relied on smaller releases and audiences dedicated to the theatrical experience, looks different. “We don’t have 5,000 seats in our cinema,” Stafford notes. “We have 325. So if we sell half as many of that for a show, that’s great.”

Beyond the numbers, the pandemic experience has only confirmed and maybe strengthened, arthouse moviegoers’ attachment to their favorite theaters, a connection that goes beyond seeing them as convenient places to watch movies. “It was a very, It’s a Wonderful Life kind of thing where people just wanted to help people [and] wanted to throw money at us,” Stafford remembers of the first months of the pandemic. Williams echoes those thoughts while emphasizing the work the Plaza needed to put in to survive.

“Our community immediately supported us,” he says, before adding, “I think half of it was because we were trying so hard. We were just continuously showing that we’re not closing. We’re not lying down. We’re trying to soldier on no matter what. I think that also helped our community come support us. A lot of people like that hustler’s ambition people show sometimes: Oh yeah, I have to figure out a way to make this work no matter what.”